Former UK GDS chief publishes 21 ‘shortcuts’ to ease digital transformation in government

By on 12/03/2023 | Updated on 13/03/2023
A photograph of Kevin Cunnington speaking at Global Government Forum's Finance Summit in 2022.
Kevin Cunnington speaking at Global Government Forum's Finance Summit in 2022.

Former UK digital chief Kevin Cunnington has today launched a major new report, setting out 21 ways to address some of the biggest problems facing digital leaders around the world.

The product of two years’ research with civil servants from more than 30 countries, ‘The digital leader’s toolkit: 21 ways to transform government’ is designed as a “practitioner’s handbook,” said Cunnington – presenting ideas and innovations that digital professionals around the world have used to hasten progress on transformation, along with comments and analysis from a wide range of national digital leaders.

Cunnington, who was the director general of the UK’s Government Digital Service from 2016 to 2019, said the report has been designed to serve “very senior people involved in any way in the delivery of new digital services, and the supplier ecosystem that goes with it.” Many of its messages are aimed at non-digital civil service professionals, he added, including departmental leaders and senior executives in fields such as finance and procurement.

Produced under Global Government Forum’s Digital Leaders research programme, the report brings together techniques, arguments and reforms that have proved effective in helping to improve the environment and build the foundations for digital transformation. Governments tend to encounter similar obstacles as they seek to make better use of technology, commented Cunnington, but “although we all share the same problems, our solutions are different because we have different constitutions, cultures, politics and legacy environments.”

As a consequence, there is no single route map to successful transformation – but civil servants nonetheless have much to learn from one another, sharing techniques that will work in their own unique environments. Asked what the report offers to its readers, Cunnington replied: “Shortcuts! People can look up the best applicable answer for their circumstances. I think we did a very good job with the analysis, explaining why some of these issues are important and haven’t been fixed – but hopefully people will also find solutions that resonate for them, and then go and try them out.”

The new research builds on a 2022 report, ‘Asking the experts: What do digital leaders need to succeed?’. Also produced by Cunnington with Global Government Forum, and based on interviews with the digital heads of seven leading nations, that report set out seven key findings on the progress of – and barriers to – digital transformation in governments around the world.

‘Asking the experts’ was well received by civil service digital leaders. But as Cunnington pointed out in a video shot to mark the new report’s launch, “the findings were predominantly about challenges and problems, rather than solutions.” What’s more, he said, “A lot of the findings weren’t about digital itself, but about the environment in which digital technology had to work.” The earlier report made clear that digital transformation is as dependent on the engagement and support of national, organisational and other professional leaders as it is on the efforts of digital professions; so it would only have the required impact if its messages reached well beyond the digital workforce.

Read more: Global report reveals senior officials lack understanding to drive digital transformation of government

Practical help and advice

In response, the second phase of the Digital Leaders research programme had two main goals: to carry the first report’s messages to all these interest groups, maximising its impact; and to collate effective ways of hastening progress on digital transformation, producing a second report designed to offer practical help and ideas to digital professionals.

Combining the two goals, Cunnington presented the 2022 report’s findings at GGF’s annual Summits serving national heads of civil service, the leaders of finance departments and treasuries, and central digital chiefs – taking the opportunity to gather participants’ perspectives on the challenges, opportunities and solutions. We also ran three online workshops for senior digital leaders, covering digital strategies, workforce issues, and two aspects of digital ID, and surveyed their participants.

Taking the seven key findings presented in that first report, ‘The digital leader’s toolkit’ presents further analysis and evidence along with three ways to catalyse progress in each field. These solutions, ranging from helpful arguments to major new services, are designed to help digital leaders secure the support, capabilities and reforms required to pursue their agendas.

To secure more capital investment in replacing ageing legacy systems, for example, some digital leaders have been highlighting the fact “that we live in a much more hostile world now than perhaps we did five or ten years ago,” explained Cunnington. Older systems are much more vulnerable to data theft, cyber extortion and attack by foreign governments, “so they’ve been pressing the case from a cyber security perspective that we need to put a lot more money into securing and replacing legacy – and that’s proved to be a compelling argument in the US, the UK and other countries.”

At the other end of the scale, the report profiles the UK’s Digital Marketplace: an online catalogue of IT services offered by pre-approved suppliers. In 2010, Cunnington said, the UK spent £16bn (US$19bn) on technology, 80% of it with 20 big firms. By 2020, its digital services and infrastructure had much improved while IT spending had fallen to £9bn (US£11bn): nearly half of this money was spent with more than 2000 suppliers via the Digital Marketplace, 40% of it going to SMEs. “Not only does government money now do a better job for government, but we also created a whole ecosystem of smaller companies that can do business with government,” Cunnington commented.

The report’s findings chime with those of a new report by the National Audit Office. Published last Friday, ‘Digital transformation in government: addressing the barriers to efficiency’ profiles the work underway by the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) – whose chief executive officer, Megan Lee Devlin, attended the Global Government Digital Summit and is quoted in the new GGF report.

The NAO points out that UK departments “cannot acquire sufficient digital skills and expertise in their teams,” and argues that “Many business leaders do not yet have the expertise required to comprehend and tackle the challenges the civil service faces in a digital age. Stronger digital expertise and capacity-building, sustained support from the centre of government and the continued goodwill of department senior business leaders are needed to maintain momentum.”

These problems are not unique to the UK, and the NAO’s findings are reflected in the analysis and solutions provided in GGF’s new report – which, for example, explores how to expand and develop the digital workforce; drive change from the centre of government; and engage with departmental leaders, business owners and ministers

Asking the experts: What do digital leaders need to succeed?’ is available now on our website. Many of the national digital leaders who appear in the report – including USA federal CIO Clare Martorana, UK CDDO chief executive Megan Lee Devlin and Digital Iceland CEO Andri Heiðar Kristinsson will be speaking at GGF’s Innovation conference on Tuesday 21 March: public servants can register to attend free of charge via our website.

Want to write for GGF? We are always looking to hear from public and civil servants on the latest developments in their organisation – please get in touch below or email [email protected]

About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

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